Tips of Helping Gifted, Highly Sensitive Teens & Kids Cope with Trauma

Updated: Feb 16, 2019

By Sharon Barnes, MSSW, LCSW.

Some children and teens are more sensitive than others. You know if you have one. She gets mad at you and may even cry when you squish a spider with your shoe or swat a fly with a flyswatter. He tries to keep up with his friends or siblings, but when they watch scary movies, he has nightmares. She picks her clothes by which ones are comfortable, not what looks good. Clothes with scratchy labels or seams are out. Old shoes are preferred over new ones, because they feel good to wear. And these kids are traumatized by news stories about tragedies that nobody else in the family even notices.

What do you do when this child is traumatized by tragedy that is on the other side of the country or the world? Or something that happens to them at school may hurt their feelings so much that in your opinion, they are grossly over-reacting. They may cry, mope around, worry, not be able to sleep or concentrate on school work or chores, or they may be irritable all the time, preoccupied about what is happening to the people in the midst of the tragedy.

It’s important to know that highly sensitive people–adults and children–comprise about 10-20% of the population. What seems like an over-reaction to you, is normal and perfectly OK for a highly sensitive person. It can also be helpful to know what a normal reaction to trauma is. Trauma is defined as any life-threatening experience that is outside the range of normal human experience.

A trauma response can occur to anyone who has been in a life-threatening event. And anyone who has seen it, in person, on TV, or even in a movie, can experience what is called vicarious traumatization. Highly sensitive, bright and especially gifted kids who have active imaginations are prime subjects for it.

Anyone who experiences real trauma is, and feels, helpless in the face of what has happened. Trauma also brings loss, for nothing is ever again the same. People are injured; property is destroyed. People die. Because of this, we lose our sense of safety, our trust in other people, our beliefs about control, predictability, and on and on. This profound loss of the familiar is a hallmark of trauma. This is more upsetting to a child than to an adult, even if it is ‘only’ vicarious traumatization.

How do people usually react to trauma?

Trauma response is a process, not an event. For both children and adults, it includes our physical (biological) and emotional (psychological) responses to what has happened, and it recurs whenever we hear more about what has happened. These are normal, predictable responses to both trauma and vicarious trauma. Others include:

1) Hyperarousal: increased heartbeat and breathing, agitation, difficulty breathing, muscular jitteriness, racing thoughts, high anxiety levels, even anxiety attacks.

2) Constriction: not being able to feel normally, physically or emotionally. This is the brain’s way of protecting us from what is too much to bear all at once, and of focusing the brain and body to defend or protect ourselves.

3) Dissociation: Feeling disconnected from what has happened and from other people can be normal in the beginning, but should gradually subside as time passes and as we process physically and emotionally what has happened. The reality sinks in gradually, a little at a time, as we are able to cope with it. Denial is part of this. We hear ourselves saying, “This can’t be happening. Not here, not to me, not to our community.” Disconnecting from our bodily senses can be a part of it. We may feel like we are somewhere else, watching this happen to someone else. We may be ‘spacey’ or forgetful. We may feel physical symptoms when the cause is not physical, but displacement of emotions.

4) Freezing, immobility, connected with a feeling of helplessness: This is the ‘deer in the headlights’ syndrome, or like pressing both the accelerator and the brake in an automobile at the same time. It involves a sense of complete immobilization; the body cannot move, a paralysis so complete that a person cannot move or make a sound. This response is likely only for those whose lives were actually threatened in the incident, and can sometimes also be experienced in a delayed manner.

Our responses come from our fight or flight response being activated, our nervous system being signaled to energize our survival response. This includes physical responses of increase in heart rate, difficulty breathing (shallow, rapid, panting, etc) cold sweats, tingling muscular tension, and mental responses of increase in thoughts, mind racing and worrying.

Other normal responses to trauma are:

· being ‘on guard’ at all times (hypervigilence)

· intrusive imagery or flashbacks

· extreme sensitivity to light and sound

· hyperactivity

· exaggerated emotional and physical startle responses

· nightmares and night terrors